Around noon, Nencia from Mechanical comes to me with a worried look. “Prospero wants you in Observation,” she says, and a wave of fear dries my mouth.
I’m pretty sure he can’t know about our plan, not yet.
Of course, probably he’ll know the moment we start to execute it—the planet will tell him—but we have to ignore that and act like it’s going to work, because the only alternative is to lie down and die.
“I’ll go,” I tell her, and while I walk there, my hands start to tremble as I try to anticipate what he might want and how the conversation might go and whether today will be one of the days I get to walk out of there, instead of being carried.
I find him in Observation alone—seemingly alone. I scan for the telltale haze of Shards in motion, for their thin, translucent undercarriage, but don’t see it. Which means nothing.
He’s watching the viewscreen in the wall, the only full-size one in the habitat. A simple-looking man, barrel-chested but not large, with close-cropped hair, a medium beard, bushy eyebrows, his mouth always set in a slight frown.
“I have done nothing but in care of you, my dear one, my daughter,” he says to me, his gaze still fixed on the screen.
That sentence raises the hairs on the back of my neck. It’s a lie, and an immensely horrible one on every level, and it feels like a threat of worse things to come.
I step closer to look out at the continually dark, intensely jungled world, at whatever’s got his attention, and then suck in my breath. A storm is coming.
The sky always looks like a bruise, purple and blue and swollen. I would say I can’t get used to it, but I’ve never known anything else. The photos and videos of Earth are impossibly beautiful to me, like pure imagination or a lucid dream. Now, red light seeps up from the edge of the horizon, and thousands of Jellies float in our direction on the strengthening breeze, their pure white tendrils trailing yards behind them and their bruise-dark hungry maws gaping in front, toothless and harmless to our habitat but presaging the storm.
If only the wobble of the planet around the sun were more predictable, we could know when the sun and its storms will come.
“Will we be protected?” I ask Prospero. I’m poised to run, to spread the alarm and suit up, in case his whim is that today we suffer the full brunt of the storm.
Prospero scratches at the red pock marks on his face, the only evidence of the change that came over him when the planet gave him back to us. The Jellies are so thick they almost blot out the coming sun, and they’re coming faster already as the wind intensifies.
“Will we be protected?” I ask again, insistently.
“Yes,” he says, and I breathe again. I look back out into the distance.
The faint edge of the sun appears, deadly close, making me shield my eyes, and heat radiates from it so fast, so hard, so brutal, it drives a wind before it stronger than any hurricane on Earth.
The lush, teeming alien life reacts. It’s all bugs and plants, as far as we can tell, both kinds huge, mobile, and predatory. Some mossy shapes ball up, ready to let the wind throw them to where they’ll find new prey. Enormous rounded beetle-like creatures huddle against the planet. Long-ranging networked vegetation grips earth and rock and then flips over, inverting the top layer of the planet and burying themselves in rocks too heavy and flat for even the worst winds to throw. Some giant, branched shapes—bugs or plants, I can’t tell from here—throw their thin legs into the air and flip like a thrown stick along with the gale.
The air churns with movement and with the steam of superheated acid boiling out of the atmosphere. The habitat shudders in the wind and the temperature inside goes up fast, and I break out in a sweat.
Then the bugs come, the huge ones that protect us now because Prospero wills it. They’re spider-like; we call them the Legs because they have so many multi-jointed appendages on their long abdomens. They swarm to us with the horrible sound of giant mandibles clicking, and I want to cower, but I stand strong and watch them interlock thousands of black chitinous legs and build a structure light and strong over the outer surface of our habitat.
What’s that out there against the red light of the sun, visible through the holes in the interlocking insect legs? A shape that I don’t recognize. Parts of it gleam, silvery.
I step closer to the screen and stare, trying to make it out. It takes shape, finally, and realization presses into me, but I deny it. It’s impossible. We’ve been here twelve years and we’ve never seen any sign of any of the other colony ships. They’re all dead—we’re almost dead ourselves.
But I watch it grow in size as it works its way toward us, I watch it veer and shake as the wind intensifies, and then my stomach clenches hard in certainty, and I turn to my father.
“Is that a ship?”
“It was a ship,” he says. “It doesn’t know yet that the life has gone out of it.”
I reel at his callous words. I put my hand on the viewscreen as if I could touch the people that must be out there. The wind rocks the ship, hard. He’s right. It’s not going to make it. I turn to him, fear crushing my chest. “You have to do something.”
Prospero just smirks. He looks out to the storm, closes his eyes to whisper to creatures I can’t see, and nods in satisfaction.
I lose it. “Prospero! Help them!” I yell. Then I realize I’ve forgotten to call him captain, but my stomach doesn’t even turn; too much is happening, too much is at stake. “Send the bugs!” I try to think of what might sway him—not human compassion, not justice—”Think what they might have! Resources. Communications, food, tools… We need them!”
“No tongue! All eyes!” Prospero commands me. “Be silent!”
“You can’t let them die!” I shout. “Send the Legs! Now! Please!”
He looks into the empty center of the room at unseen things, then gestures toward me impatiently, his dark eyes flashing under his bushy eyebrows, and I know what’s going to happen to me, and my stomach lurches, pitching acid into my throat even as the Shards shift into sight out of nothingness and glide toward me.
Each one is as tall as me, each one made up of a hundred plates of translucent mineral sliced razor thin, each plate an inch apart, all connected tenuously at a translucent base; somewhere in there is enough vegetable matter to make the thing technically organic. They know to turn so that prey is always viewing them side-on, so that they’re invisible except for a haze in the air when they’re moving, and by the time you see that, it’s too late.
It’s too late for me, and I scream in helpless rage as they press toward me from three directions, but I draw my utility knife and throw myself at Prospero as hard as I can, because I’ll suffer anything to save the people on those ship.